396. A Stick of Incense

The Dojo is full of symbols;  explicit ones like the Buddha or the flowers on the altar and implicit ones: sitting facing the wall in a replication of Bodhidharma, the path we take around the room, and so on.

If we understand symbols as simply being a concrete code for an explicit meaning, the symbol is a dead symbol and is useless. If we take the flowers on the altar as a symbol of impermanence, or we take the Buddha statue as a symbol of wisdom and compassion, that can’t do anything.

The purpose of a symbol is not to convey meaning in a concrete form, but to create a shift in feeling.

And that shift can only happen if the symbol is open.

It’s as if it is an incomplete house which you can enter and change, extend and reconfigure. The symbol is something which is both already, intensely there and which you can actively engage with.

If the house is complete and the symbol is simply a closed meaning then the house is inaccessible. Not to your mind obviously, which is delighted with the free house, but to your heart. If you’re inside the house, the house is a prison.

Our responsibility as practitioners is to engage with both the symbols in the dojo and the symbols in our everyday life in an open way, where each changes the other. 

For example, the stick of incense that we light at the start of the sitting period;  it lasts for approximately the length of a sitting. You might think that it represents passing time, and so is similar to the altar flowers, which represent impermanence.

I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. 

When the incense is burning in the bowl of ash, both in its fragrance and in its smoke, it is penetrating the whole room. What it’s expressing is vital and essential and is connected with everything—the whole universe is flooding through. And what appears to remain afterwards is the stump of that incense which is embedded in the ash. But that isn’t so: that ash comes from all the incense burned before. What holds the present moment is the complete expression of all past moments.

When we’re sitting, the obvious temptation is for us to focus on those little stumps that are left in the mind bowl. But there is an opposite, heroic trap:  because the incense has expressed itself to exhaustion, we might think this wholehearted activity is an admonition to us to do likewise. But the ego can’t burn itself, because you can’t burn a ghost.

Those stumps of ego: thoughts, frozen emotions, recurrent imagery or memory and so on that we often experience as restrictions to our sitting: it’s that sense of restriction which is the delusion: those stumps are buried within the ground of all being. We should not wish them into nothingness.


367. Liberation

Here in Glasgow in November all the leaves have fallen from the trees.

 We might talk about this by saying that autumn leaves fall.  In a slight variation of that, we may say within my life, in my 62nd year, in the autumn, I see the leaves fall.

These apparently innocuous containers of autumn and my life blind us to the evanescence, the aliveness of our actual life; autumn is the leaves falling—it’s nothing else

Your life is each event in it. There is no container of self. There is no container of time to enable self.

There’s two expressions that  we have in zen: one is genjo which means actualisation as in ‘genjokoan’ and the other is todatsu which means liberation.

Liberation means that each moment is complete; in its self-expression it is free from before and after.

And so, at least sometimes, we are not like a tramp impacted with the grime of our karma, trudging from babyhood to death.

 The kanji for Genjokoan signifies something like a person coming out of a house: something that was latent becomes vivid.

When we sit Zazen, and not just then, in other moments of our life, we give expression to something within us which we cannot name. It is like a little bird flying out of a burning house.   


325. Trees

I remember visiting a friend who lived at the top of a valley. 

From her garden you could look right across the valley to the other side. On the slope of that ‘other side’, was a line of trees, working their way up the slope. From looking at them, it was clear that the oldest was the one nearest the bottom, and the youngest was the one furthest up. 

It seemed clear that over time, the tree at the bottom had given birth to the tree next up, which in turn had given birth and so on, quite outside the consciousness of each tree, which was simply expressing itself in each moment; expressing itself through the soft earth; expressing itself through the open air; but despite the tree’s focus on its expression in the moment, it was nonetheless walking through time.

It’s hard for us to practice in this way, and to live in this way, because we believe that each moment is enfolded within the skin of memory, judgment, perception, anticipation – the body of an enduring person.

What we need to understand is that we are not smeared across all the moments of our life. Each moment is infinitely faceted and must be fully expressed now. If not now, then when?


317. The Tower and The Ground

When Buddhism arose in 5th century bc India, it – along with Jainism, its contemporary –  retained many of the characteristics of the dominant Brahman religion.

Those which were shared were: samsara, the belief that we’re reborn from one life to the next over a very long period of time; karma, that our actions determine the quality of our rebirths; and liberation, becoming free of those rebirths.

For both Brahmanism and Jainism, what was retained within those various rebirths was the soul, an underlying transcendent self, which was encased within this coating of what we would assume to be the person: body, mind, consciousness and so on. The point of practice, particularly the mortification practices which the pre-enlightenment Buddha’s companions carried out, was to free that immortal soul from that casing and so liberate it from samsara.

Buddhism diverges from Brahmanism and Jainism by denying both the soul and the reality of an unchanging self. But on the face of it,  Buddhism retains those other aspects: karma, samsara and eventual liberation. 

One of the results of that retention, is that there has been a persistently vexing issue for buddhists – ‘How can there be consequences?’ ‘If there’s no ‘self’, then if I do bad things, to what and where do the consequences of that adhere?’

 A lot of Buddhist intellectual effort, around about the time of Nagarjuna in particular, was trying to produce a coherent system which would give answers to questions like that. 

 However, at a fundamental level, it’s wrongheaded.

We assume that we and other entities persist through time. We take it for granted there are distinct phenomena called ‘self’ and ‘things’ which, as it were, unravel their will, their narrative and their destiny through time. But it’s the other way around. Other than as an obvious, convenient and, probably inescapable way of making sense of our world, our idea of linear time – past, present and future – comes about precisely to accommodate this presumption of the self or the soul. So by logical implication, when the self is no longer affirmed, then ‘time’ as commonly understood, is no longer affirmed either. 

We often think of ‘being’ and  ‘time’ as like two planes. We think perhaps of a horizontal plane which is ‘being’ and a vertical plane which is ‘time’. If we wanted to make this more figurative, then we could imagine ‘being’ as being the ground and ‘time’ as being this gradually upwardly growing tower, constantly reaching up towards the future. We might also imagine the self as a person running up the staircase of that tower; both to avoid the imaginary annihilation of the past but also, to elevate.

This tower is inherently unstable: because it is made of the self and all that the self implies, if the self vanishes, the tower collapses, back into the ground of being.


297. Beginningless and Endless

Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment. 

One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.

It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?” 

Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.

Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.

In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?

Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two. 

If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.

Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.

If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?

Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body  is lying there -passive and dough like –  as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.

But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.


255. Dragons see palaces

Kusen 255 collaboration ‘Inter’ by Blair Thomson

(heavy rain is falling)

In the Mountains and Waters Sutra, Dogen says that when human beings see water, fish and dragons see palaces. He doesn’t say that the fish and dragons are mistaken. He also says that although human beings see mountains as still, they are always walking.

Within this ocean, are there palaces, or not? Within this mountain, is there movement, or not?

This being moment is completely manifested, like a mountain. It isn’t dependent on past and future. This being moment is completely liberated within interconnectedness. It flows in all directions, like the ocean: from past to future, from future to past, from present to present. This manifestation and liberation is our life.


232. The ground beneath the ocean

Our lives do not exist in time. But in our lives, time exists. It is not that we have been living these thirty years, these sixty years. They are living through us.

This person is the pillar of the world. This person is like the ground beneath the ocean, holding the water in his open palm, so it does not cascade into nothingness.


210. This time being

If we just see impermanence from the perspective of the self there is only suffering.

If we put the self to one side, the ground of this time being extends in all directions.

It flows from the past to the present, from the present to the present, from the present to the past.

Likewise the Dharma.


61. The Still Still State

Dogen says that we shouldn’t distinguish between practice and enlightenment. Practice isn’t the means by which we attain enlightenment. Practice itself is enlightened activity.

And we can see that Dogen is challenging layers of dualism. If enlightenment is distinct from practice, there must be a person who attains it, and his enlightenment – and his personhood – is distinct from the world.

He is primarily challenging the primary dualism, that of Time and being. It is on this dualism that all the others rest. We are born, we endure, we die. Our lives take place in time. But this is a fundamental alienation from ourselves.

In wholehearted activity time does not exist.


57. Full Dynamic Functioning

Time is the cornerstone of delusion. Because there is persistence, things can exist. Because there are things, events can occur in time, they can occur in the world, they can occur in your life. And so, the original wholeness of our experience is stretched and dualised.

For Dogen, what is primary is exertion, expression, full dynamic functioning; the exemplar of which is zazen. It is not that time and space do not exist. Rather, they are aspects of full dynamic functioning.

It is our duty as Buddhists to save the beauty of this from being crushed under the railway tracks of linear time.